Responding Communally and Compassionately in Greece

Sanghabuild Arrives in Athens

November, 2017

Dear Beloved Community,

Greetings from Athens! It is with tremendous joy and dedicated hearts that we write to you from our blooming residential practice community in Greece: Wαkε Up Athεnα!

Over the past month, over a dozen of Wake Uppers have descended from diverse European countries and North America with the aspirations to live and practice together, listen deeply and learn, and serve the beautiful people, animals, and land here.

As many of you know, during the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They have risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. The stories they are sharing with us reveal both the ever-resilient and tender loving heart of humanity, as well as the depths of human sorrow and tragedy.

We have come with a deep faith in the power and resiliency of our own beloved community and practice to support us in responding both communally and compassionately to this ongoing situation. First and foremost, we come here to learn, listen, and appreciate the strength, wisdom, and joy that has kept them alive and persevering through untold hardships. They are our teachers here, no doubt.

Beholding Athens, in all its glory and challenges

We also believe that as a community of practice, we have something to offer to the people, animals, and land here – that by our practice of deep listening and mindfulness in daily life, we may respond in ways that offer true friendship and support.

So far, we’ve been 15 practitioners strong, representing Germany, Ireland, France, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, and England. We are serving in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and more! In coming weeks and months, we will also be offering mindfulness practice sessions for staff and volunteers in NGO’s around Athens who have requested our support. Some of us will be staying for one month, others two to four months, and still others indefinitely.

We begin every day by holding each other in meditation, words from our root Teacher, and a quiet communal breakfast. Most mornings we have a check-in sharing together, and every evening, we share a communal dinner in mindfulness to support our collective harmony and joy. We maintain a vegetarian diet and freedom from alcohol or other substances in our houses, and continuously support conscious communication with each other. Every week, we do something super fun in Athens to refresh our spirits and grow our wonder at the beauty of this land. We’re continually reassessing our weekly and daily practice together to better support each other and the Athens community.

Every morning, we gather in silence and joy, preparing our minds and hearts for whatever the day asks of us.

We have been blessed by the gracious support and abilities of our Sangha sister Leonie Meester, who has been living in Greece for two years already, and opened up the door for all of us to live together in two Sangha houses in Athens, located next to each other. We live in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspire to learn from, serve, and build relationships.

Perhaps our greatest lesson thus far is that we are most effective, receive and offer the most, through the simple yet priceless beauty of friendships we have been making, both with each other and with the diverse people living here. This is where our deepest joys and gratitudes have been manifesting so far.

We welcome people’s questions, encouragements, and support for our Sangha living and service experiment.

Bowing before the three jewels,

David Viafora, representing Wake Up Athena

To learn more, visit us on Facebook: Greece Sangha Service Project

The Abbot of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, Thay Phap Huu offered us this calligraphy to support and encourage our efforts as a community of practice in Greece. It has been our prevailing mantra throughout.



Interview with Morning Sun Community - as featured in the Mindfulness Bell

Morning Sun Community's Featured Article

We are excited to share Sanghabuild's interview with Morning Sun Founders Michael and Fern, recently published in the Mindfulness Bell, a journal of the art of mindful living!

We feel that this is one of our best articles yet, and we are happy to invite you into Morning Sun's first intimate steps as a young but thriving community. We are also excited to share that the editor selected Sanghabuild's photo of Morning Sun's young adult retreat as the cover photo!

For a more authentic experience with the original Mindfulness Bell article, we have preserved the article and photos in their initial form and layout for you to read.

Step into Morning Sun Community's creation and adventure

We also wholeheartedly invite you to check out more of what the Mindfulness Bell journal has to offer.  Each issue focuses on the most cutting edge practices and topics of socially engaged practice in our world, from mindfulness in education, mindful consumption, social justice and racial equity, practicing peace in times of war, mindfulness and the Plum Village community's continuation in light of Thich Nhat Hanh's illness, and more...

Deepen your journey of practice with the Mindfulness Bell...


Fig Picking and Harmonious Living in West Hamlet: Part 2

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living 

 Part 2 of the West Hamlet Series

August, 2017

During our last evening at West Hamlet, Michel and Pascale invited us to take a walk around the vineyards and forests, to a place they often enjoy together as a couple. We still had some packing and cleaning to do, but we knew that this opportunity was not to be missed. West Hamlet is perched upon a plateau that overlooks a long plain of vibrant greenery. Along their property and neighboring lands are terrific views of farms, vineyards, and forests expanding as far as the eye can see… all of them exuding different shades of nature’s emerald solar panels.

We walked to Pascale’s favorite spot on the banks of a shallow hillside cliff, and silently watched the sunset together. In no words at all, Vanessa and I listened and watched the simple beauty of Michel and Pascale’s life unfolding together there at West Hamlet: time to meditate in community each morning, watching sunsets with friends in the evening, communicating deeply with each other as a couple, and leisure time in nature (not to mention luscious fig trees on our walk!). They prioritized living simply within an abundance of nature, instead of more affluent jobs in the city.

A daily spectacle, just behind West Hamlet

Walking back up a small hill, Pascale showed us some juniper bushes and berries that she often collects to flavor her homemade sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. While picking a few on the spot, she relaxedly shared with us, “I love the nature here, it’s so rich. I love gathering plants, their seeds, and fruits. And I love the plants themselves. Sometimes we go out and pick herbs for hours, and then share them with everyone. When I think of going back to the city, I think ‘Oh no, there’s so much nature here.’”

The overwhelming beauty and proximity to nature is clearly nourishing for everyone in West Hamlet. But whenever I asked them about what they love the most about living there, interestingly, nature wasn’t number one.

“What do I love?”, Pascale amusedly pondered. “Being so close to the Village, benefiting from the days of mindfulness, the morning meditations… all the time we spend at the Village. And what I love the most is to give French classes to the Brothers and Sisters, because that amuses me so much!” Similarly, Michel shared, “What pleases me, is that we are on a path of practice, and we live many ways together in the practice.”

The other residents were quite on the same page as we asked them later. “The proximity to the Village”, Serge replied without the slightest hesitation. “That’s the most important. It’s not only because we are physically close, but it’s the meetings and time together with the Brothers and Sisters. That’s what I love. And the place is so beautiful here, very lovely. When I’m with the Brothers and Sisters, I’m close to the teachings, the recitations, formal lunch, walking meditation outside, and the wider lay community. I have so much joy with my spiritual family.”

A common noontime sight at West Hamlet on a lay day

Over the week, I heard over and over again about how privileged they felt to be living so close to the Village and spending intimate time with the monastics. Over the course of my stay, and often hearing about the joys of living together and down the road from Plum Village, I started to wonder, ‘So, where does the rubber meet the road here in West Hamlet?’. I was curious.

“What difficulties do you experience in community here?”, I asked each of them. Amazingly, both Serge and Josselyne, as well as Michel and Pascal expressed that they had virtually no problems living with the others in community. ‘Interesting, I thought…’ and continued to probe further.

I was sure that regular sharing circles were a big part of their harmonious magic and bonding together. Most communities we had visited used practices like Dharma Sharing and Beginning Anew to attune to each other, develop understanding, and resolve tensions. But once again, they surprised me. When I asked about Beginning Anew (a group sharing exercise that allows expression for gratitudes, regrets, and asking for community support), Serge responded bluntly that they don’t practice formally in that way. As for Dharma sharing, they originally tried to schedule it every week, but in actuality, they only meet monthly, mostly because of their time in Upper Hamlet. I was surprised to see how harmonious they were living together, while not practicing in this way. ‘How do they do it?’, I wondered.

Taking a walk down the road from West Hamlet, vineyards and bucolic homes adorn the way.

Michel helped to point out the differences between communication within their intimate partnerships versus their community practice. “As a couple, we do beginning anew, and we share a lot. In our lay hamlet, however, from time to time, we only share as a group once a month. Sometimes, we share only every few months, because of all the retreats happening in the Village. But we also practice informally with each other: loving speech, compassionate listening, and of course all our nonverbal gestures. We pay attention to each other, not to hurt or upset each other. For example, I’m a smoker, and I always try to pay attention not to disturb others whenever I smoke.”

Serge explained that while at home, “We tend to really focus on how conscious we are of each other throughout the day. It’s our informal practice of mindfulness that never stops. We function more like a family here. Everyone gives energy to do something when they can do it.” Otherwise he explained, “We let it go and there’s no pressure.”

Our conversations also explored other roots of their harmonious living. For example, everyone had commented at least once how much joy and energy they derive from working and spending time with the monastic community almost every day. Michel expressed with admiration, “The Brothers are a magnificent example of such brotherhood. The community monastic is a global model.” Such closeness with the monastics consistently nourishes and supports the way they speak, listen, think, and behave at home together.

I was curious about their weekly schedule of practice and how instrumental it was towards their communal harmony. Serge recounted their learning early on together that they couldn’t live up to high expectations of daily morning and evening meditations, and other activities in West Hamlet. It was unrealistic for their daily lives often spent in the monastery, so they changed their program to four simple morning meditations per week with rotating facilitators. Each morning, the facilitator chooses the program based upon their individual inspiration. They always sit for 30 minutes, but the facilitator may choose either a guided or silent seated meditation, followed by walking meditation, sutra reading, touching the earth, or whatever practice he or she wishes to guide.

I was impressed by their collective harmony together, but pressed further about what challenges them in community life. “What about for yourselves individually?”, I asked. “What’s difficult for you?”

Warm glowing candlelight infuses their intimate hall during morning meditations

Without much reflection on the spot, Josselyn easily admitted, “Sometimes I just need more silence and solitude. I would like to have a little cabin in the forest at times. That’s my character to need this. Not a lot, just from time to time.” “Yes, me too”, Serge chimed in. “But that’s possible because of our age. When we were on retreat for 10 days at Montagne du Dharma, there was such silence there. When we are at Plum Village, or with our family, I really need space not to talk so much, some silence. Chatting really makes me tired.”

Josselyne amusedly continued. “We thought that we would have several moments in community, and then spend most of our time alone. But the community has shown us otherwise. In fact, we see that we have a little room now and the rest of it is community space. So we spend most of our time in community, with less time for ourselves alone. So it’s flexibility that is so important for us to have.”

Serge also confessed that he often feels the weight of his perceived community role as the ‘Papa’. “That’s a bit difficult at times, to always be the Papa. The role of Papa, I’ve done that for a long time, and I don’t necessarily want to do that again: the one who gives directions, rules, and responsibility. Not only Papa, but leader, even if I have qualities for that.” I asked Serge, “Do you think that it’s more your habits or the community’s needs?” “The two, yes”, he said, “But it’s my responsibility to look at my habits and always be responsible for them.” Between their sharings, I could sense the degree of personal responsibility that people took for their own frustrations and needs. It was likely another significant plus towards the communal harmony scale.

“The Kingdom is Now or Never” – Thay’s powerful reminder to all who who enter the hamlet

It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned something else about West Hamlet’s harmony and ease of communal living. Pascale had been sharing with me about a potential community living project near Plum Village that is more long-term in nature. Both couples are highly considering buying a residential complex with several other families and couples. She reflected, “We don’t have many difficulties here at West Hamlet, because we don’t have many big decisions here. Materially we don’t have difficulties; we only make decisions about the food and that’s easy for us. Each couple has their own room, so we don’t really have any challenges sharing space. I’m aware that it’s more difficult when we make bigger decisions as a community, because there’s more at risk.” “Aha. That makes sense”, I affirmed, as we added another piece of the harmony puzzle.

It’s clear that the six adults at West Hamlet are deeply committed and skillful practitioners, taking time and energy to live consciously and harmoniously together. But hearing Pascale share about the temporary nature of their home helped me to realize something. They are guests in West Hamlet which has unique rewards there, namely harmony and proximity to the monastics. At the same time, there are limitations to their lives there as well, namely decision making that is coupled with greater ownership and long-term sustainability. Pascale continued to reveal insights more at length with me, helping me to understand their next steps forward towards sustainable lay community living, while not neglecting both the gems and rocks that lay on their path (to be continued in a following post!).

Pascale, with figs in hand and a smile in midday bloom

On our way back home, I showed Pascale and Michel a fig tree that I found while jogging the other day. “Look!” I said. “There are so many purple figs here that no one is even picking!” Appreciating my excitement, Michel smiled and beamed back to me,“Yes, that one is nice, but there is another one just down here, that is even better. The fruits are bigger and just as sweet, with both purple and green ones nearby.” “I like the dry ones”, said Pascale. “You can collect those too, and they will last during your travels.”

My small bag was getting too full of figs, so with Vanessa’s promise to wash my shirt, I took it off for us to collect another few rounds. Like excited children, we picked and ate figs to our hearts’ content, laughed, shared, and ate some more before finally walking back together in the dark. Ready to take along with us on our journey the next morning, we strolled back with an overflowing bag and shirt full of fresh and dried figs, complete gratitude for our sunset walk, tremendous joy for our new friendships, and not to mention, a shirt completely stained and dripping with fig juices. And yes, Vanessa did fulfill her promise to wash it… about one week later 😉


This is the second of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4:

Living as a Couple in Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale, and

Deeper Roots, Fresh Visions: Visioning Sustainable Lay Community near Plum Village


Recreation of West Hamlet: The Lay Residential Community of Plum Village, Part 1

Quick and Cool News!....

This August, the Sanghabuild duo of David and Vanessa participated as staff in the Wake Up retreat in Plum Village, where we were joined by over 500 young adults. No, not 50… yes, 500! It was an incredible retreat with an explosion of meditation practice combined with creative expressions. To learn more and get a peak window into the retreat, feel free to check these sublime photos by Mercia Moseley.

But back to our mission of lay mindfulness centers…


 Part 1 of the West Hamlet Series

The Creation and Recreation of the West Hamlet, Plum Village

August, 2017

“Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

After staffing the Wake Up retreat for two weeks, Vanessa and I spent one week with the community at West Hamlet, located in Plum Village about 2 kilometers from Upper Hamlet. We spent a week with its then current resident couples, Serge and Josselyne, and Michel and Pascal, who have been living in West Hamlet for almost 2 years. Later that month, another couple from Wake Up Paris moved in with their new baby, giving the small hamlet a holy resident number of 7.

So how did this lay hamlet sprout up so vibrantly in the monastery? There are two threads we will weave together here: the early construction and renovation of West Hamlet by pioneering lay Dharma teachers Karl and Helga in 1993, as well as the re-establishment of West Hamlet as a lay residential community in 2015 with its current residents. The older story is told in full glory and details in a separate post, Treasures of the Elders. For now, we offer the newest story of its re-creation, including reflections and growing ambitions from the current community, and photos comparing West Hamlet of the 1990’s with West Hamlet of 2017. Let’s see how this river has wound its way down the mountain over the years…

The historic meeting between West Hamlet founders Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied in front of the old buildings…

25 years later, in the exact same location, Sanghabuild meets the new West Hamlet caretakers Josselyne and Serge.

In 2011, Serge and Josselyne were among a group of deeply committed lay practitioners envisioning a new ‘manyfold’ community practice center in the south of France, known as Montagne du Dharma, or Dharma Mountain (manyfold meaning monks, nuns, and diverse lay practitioners). A group of 15 to 20 people, including 3 nuns and 2 monks started working together, holding a few visioning retreats for themselves, and sharing dreams to manifest a center that could especially support the future of young people in France. They envisioned a community where lay friends lived all-year round, and the monastics would often come to support it with retreats.

As they enthusiastically shared their visions and plans with others, a growing tidal wave of interest and questions from lay friends around France came as a response. They started a blog with news of its early development, and started receiving donations, collecting 30,000 Euros as a starting fund. This number soon grew to 60,000 Euros, even with no building or land yet under their name.

Eventually, a donor appeared who wanted to offer a large house in the mountains of Ardeche, which was remarkably beautiful in the pristine forest, but also remarkably cold in the dead of winter. After some months of discussion, the community knew it wasn’t the right conditions for a community practice center, and the project was placed on hold. The steering community, including Serge and Josselyne, needed to let go of their dreams for the moment and let Montagne du Dharma breathe by itself for the time being.

But the seeds for a residential lay community were still deeply planted in them all.

Larry Ward offers the gift of song to the West Hamlet community in their dining and living area during the annual New Years Eve retreat and celebration…

….Meanwhile, over 20 years later, joyful community living still ripens in the same space.

Soon after, while visiting Plum Village, monastic Brother and longtime friend Phap Lu spoke to Serge and Josselyne, “Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

There were already many lay friends living in the vicinity of the Village; it was clearly a burgeoning Sangha for both monastics and lay friends, no doubt about it. People were attracted to the monastery and days of mindfulness, and keen on community living.

Serge and Josselyne visited the monastery often and finally the monastics invited them to live there temporarily to help with some administrative documentation. This admin work was essential for the monastery, but time-consuming and challenging for the monastic Brothers. Serge and Josselyne thought about it for a short while, and then finally said to themselves, “Ok, why not? We’re ready. Let’s try it.” Like two young hippies cutting loose from mainstream society, they sold their lot, bought a camping car together, and moved to Upper Hamlet, arriving just before the French speaking retreat in April, 2014.

Josselyne shared, “We decided to sell our home, even if we didn’t know exactly what would happen. We wanted to go with the project in the Village, and be close to the monastics, even if we were unsure what that would look like.”

I was sure that Serge and Josselyne lived off of the money that they used to sell their house, and asked them to clarify how they supported themselves while living in Plum Village full time. Well, I was wrong. Josselyne explained, “We wanted to take care of our children, as well as ourselves. So we divided the sales of our house into 7 parts, because we have 5 children. So 5 parts for them, and 2 for us – that makes 7.” This was the kind of faith and generosity with which they embarked upon this new Sangha journey. “We didn’t know what would happen, but we did have a lot of confidence, faith, and a little camping car for the two of us. And we lived comfortably in it for 6 months with the Brothers.”

Karl and friends prepare the ground of renovation for West Hamlet, building a community home for generations to come…

Decades later, a lay community is reborn and flowers adorn the Sangha home of its recent ancestors.

Upon moving to the Village, Serge worked on the long and tedious process of preparing official documents for the fire marshal, as well as other bureaucratic measures that were essential for the monastery’s running as a retreat center. French speaking monastics were short in number for such tasks. Serge’s help, later aided by Michel, became an invaluable support for the community, and earned the deep respect and trust from the monastics.

Brother Michel and Sister Pascal, who practiced for years with Serge and Josselyne in the Montepelier Sangha in the south of France, joined their longtime Sangha friends in July and lived there throughout the summer and early autumn. They too were part of the collective visioning for Montagne du Dharma, and later found greater inspiration to live in Plum Village with Serge and Josselyne. Slowly dreaming of long-term living in Plum Village, they helped out here and there in the Village by cooking meals in New Hamlet, assisting with administration tasks, and teaching French courses to the monastics, loving every minute of community life in the Sangha.

By September, it was getting cold, and a small camping car wasn’t going to make it through the winter for either couple. They asked the monastics for a more sustainable living solution, patiently waiting for a response, knowing full well how fast time travels on the Plum Village clock…

Finally, by October, the brothers came with a solution, and they offered the couples an opportunity to live and practice as caretakers of the historical West Hamlet! (Okay, we knew that was going to be the solution now, but they didn’t back then). And thus West Hamlet was reborn, not merely as luxurious retreat housing just outside of Plum Village hamlets, but as a true lay residential hamlet in Plum Village.

In the backroom of the Upper Hamlet registration office, the abbot Phap Huu, and a few other brothers met with new core lay community of West Hamlet, and together they carved out details for how West Hamlet could best function and support a growing manyfold community. This is what they drafted:

  • Returning to its roots in 1993, West Hamlet is re-established as a lay hamlet; its residents live there full time, taking care of the property and guests.

  • Conviviality: every week during the lazy day, the community invites the Brothers to come over and join them for dinner! (Later, this included the Sisters too)

  • Serge and Michel take responsibility for all external bureaucratic relations of Plum Village.

  • Pascal, a former French language teacher, offers weekly French courses with the Brothers, assisted by Michel.

  • Josselyne and Pascal both work in the registration office as part of a 6 member lay-monastic team.

If you can believe it, this is the same room, separated by over two decades, great loving efforts, and countless community meditations.

Two years later, West Hamlet has been growing and thriving as a lay residence and communal space. I asked Serge and Josselyne how they have felt living and working so closely in the monastery, as opposed to their previous aspirations to build a lay center in the south of France.

Serge reflected, “We often ask ourselves this question, ‘What is really important for our lives together?’ For us, we wish to live the practice deeply, but we also wish for regular contact with the monastics to nourish our practice and relationships, not only lay friends anymore. We love the fluidity of the Village and with so much brotherhood. I like being here, because I’m in the monastery, and I’m still near the Brothers, but not with the brothers. That lets me keep some independence while still expressing my lay life. Here I have more space, whereas the monastery has the Vinaya. Here, I have the best of both worlds.”

As for Josselyne, she beamed a bright smile back at me in response to my question. “It’s an adventure. We don’t know what will happen, what will evolve.” Let’s be reminded that these are 60 year olds, not 16 year olds… I was beyond impressed how they embody the joyous vitality of impermanence in their lives, family, and community. Intrigued by Josselyne’s sense of adventure, I later asked her again about what she loves the most about living there in community.

She explained that every day she has the sense of “living vibrantly, because it’s very impermanent. I love sitting and living with that sensation. It’s living by letting go, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And so we are very present, even if it’s not always easy. We don’t know what’s going to happen here, but it’s the best environment for us. And that’s not going to change.”

The bucolic abode of West Hamlet under sunset illuminated clouds, with its traditional stonebuilt walls and modern renovations.

Josselyne also shared about what it means for her as a grandmother. “We have grandchildren, who can come and visit here whenever they want. And that’s what we want for them. Our children found a home near here too. I am happy here because I have my blood family as well as my spiritual family. What do I want more than that?”

Talking to Serge and Josselyne, you have the sense that they’ve struck gold in their lives. But not the kind of gold you find in the earth, the kind that you find in their eyes and their hearts.

As for Montagne du Dharma, in the following two years, a donor offered a beautiful property in the southwest of France accessible to urban centers, and their visioning community renewed itself while including a group of young adults passionate about the Dharma.

Serge and Josselyne are still greatly supporting its development, but like Michel and Pascal, they have already found their home in Plum Village.

Like a father or uncle, Serge embraces Vanessa as they celebrate the moment under a windswept sunset.


This is the first of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3 and 4:

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living

Living as a Couple in Plum Village Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale

Visioning a Sustainable Lay Residential Community near the Village


Part 3: Building Avalokita's Community: The Residents, Organization, and Meditation Hall

Interview with Stefano, Letizia, & Marco Part 3

Founders and Residents of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

Stefano (St): I would like to share with you about when Thay visited here. One of our founders, Sylvia wrote this:

“On March 21, 2008, Thay visited the newly purchased property here. With the apple and cherry tree blossoms and snowy mountains in the background, Thay shared his mind about our center: “This is the pure land”, he said. Then he blessed Avalokita with a ceremony. While standing all in a circle in the big meadow, we discovered that we had no incense and no water. So Thay picked up a dandelion, and said, “With this flower, we have everything. This flower contains the whole cosmos.” Using the dandelion, he blessed the place, and all of us by touching our foreheads with the flower. We sang the Prajna Paramita in Italian, and we all felt very moved and happy.”

Sanghabuild (SB): It is wonderful that our teacher could come here and visit Avalokita while he was healthy.

St: Yes we were lucky. He came to Rome for a retreat and the day before the retreat, he was not engaged, so he could come here and visit.

SB: He must have been so proud of you.

St: We were so happy. Brother Michael also came with him, as well as Sr Gina, Phap Do, and Phap Ban. There is a video on our facebook page of Thay blessing the ceremony. (Visit Avalokita’s Facebook page to see the video)

“Thay visited the newly purchased property here. With the apple and cherry tree blossoms and snowy mountains in the background, Thay shared his mind about our center, saying, ‘This is the pure land.’”

SB: Were both of you, from the beginning, always saying, “Yes, we’re happy to live here”?’ Or at what point did that manifest, because that is a big aspiration. I really admire you three for being able to live this life.

St: For 10 years, this has been Helga’s question. Every time we met with Helga and Karl to discuss about the center, she said, “Everything is going fine. But who will live here?!” (Stefano laughs). Every time we met together, this was a koan for us. We were so lucky to have Letizia, having already lived at Intersein. Also at that time, there was a couple, Amedeo, and Nongluck, who were both OI members.

When the center opened, Helga and Karl asked me to live here as well, because I had just ended a relationship of 17 years with my partner. I was free at that moment, so they asked me if I would like to stay here too, at least for one year. I accepted, but it was also for another reason. Because, I was in love with Letizia already, although nobody knew at the time (laughing together).

I accepted the opportunity to live here, but I also confessed that I wasn’t sure that I would be able to live in a small room, as I had been used to having a larger place to myself for many years. I also explained that I needed to make some trips throughout the year. I had to admit and share about my limits at that point. I was not like Letizia and Marco who are so easy and willing to stay in a normal room, as I was used to another kind of lifestyle. It was already a big jump to stay here, so the community accepted these limits I had at the time, and still do have partially. So then I came here, and we were four. Soon after, Marco arrived in November, and we were 5.

A gorgeous summer day at Avalokita with residents Marco (kneeling), Letizia (2nd from left), and Stefano (right), as well a visiting Catholic Dominican nun from Germany.

“I was free at that moment, so they asked me if I would like to stay here too, at least for one year. I accepted, but it was also for another reason. Because, I was in love with Letizia already, although nobody knew at the time.”

St: Letizia and I moved there in the end of 2011 to support the renovation work.  There was still lots of work to the central building. This hall is an extension of the house that we created for the community.

SB: You created this meditation hall we’re in now?

Letizia (L): Yes, like the Amish. (laughs)

SB: Wow, you built it yourselves?

St: Yes, yes, but not all by ourselves (laughs). There was a carpenter, and a group of about 15 of us staying here for 2 weeks during one periond, and then another 2 weeks later. We paid the carpenter to guide our group and the group supported the rest of the construction.

L: During the construction, very often we still invited the bell for 2 minutes of silence. And even with the carpenter! (laughter)

St: We told him, “Oh, you need to stop too!” (more laughter)

SB: When did you start renovating?

St: In 2009, and it took more than 2 years to renovate.

SB: Thats’a lot of community work together, which is amazing.

S: One of our OI members, Andrea, is also a building carpenter. So we renovated places like the bathrooms, some walls, and other areas as a community with his support.

The community listens in serene stillness, as a young man offers the gifts of a bamboo flute during the last night of a retreat.

St: At one point the couple went through a crisis, both with each other and also with the center, as they had different ideas about it. After some consultations with Karl and Helga and a stay at Intersein, they left. Since the end of 2012, it has been just the three of us here.

In 2015, Marco had a crisis too, and he left for 9 months, leaving just me and Letizia here. Marco then returned in the spring and we began again. So you see, this center could not be possible if there was not a strong community embracing us. When we were just two, we still offered retreats. When the extended community came, we were a true community.

Marco (M): What our community went through when I left and came back, it underlines that this is a human path. Because when I came back, they could say ‘No, you left.’ But no, they accepted me with open hearts.

L: We were so happy when he came back because he could clarify things in himself and with us. Karl and Helga supported him and us, by giving him 3 points to clarify in himself as he returned. This event became a big path of understanding and growing up for him. When he came back, he was much more clear and stronger in himself as well.

“What our community went through when I left and came back, underlines that this is a human path… they accepted me with open hearts.”

St: I also want to share about an evolution in our community regarding the non-resident community who often supports and helps us. In the beginning, it was more an idea of material help: cooking breakfast, helping to clean, and so on. Slowly, slowly this has changed a lot. In the beginning we called them ‘Staff’. Now we call them, ‘Extended Community’. Because now, what is more important is that people come here to support the energy of the place. Together we create an energy, a field of consciousness where everybody can come and be held and supported. We know now after so many years, that when people come here, they come for this.

So if you want to make breakfast, that’s okay. But it’s not the main meaning for being here. Because when 20 people come, they need to be supported by our energy and field of consciousness. When you have this field, you have true silence and concentration. When that is missing, people are just on a kind of holiday. That’s also a good thing, we make holidays too… But it’s not the purpose of this place, not the purpose of why people come here, to go to the beach and so on. So it’s important that there’s a group around the resident community to support the energy field of the place.

L: When our extended community of friends offer help, it’s just a consequence of their own personal practice.

St: It’s a subtle thing. They don’t just come here with the idea that we need help, saying, “There are just 3 of them, we need to help them.” No, they come here to practice, and in their practice, they offer help. It’s a kind of revolution in our thinking.

L: It’s a difference in mental state.

SB: It’s beautiful to see how sensitive you are to the energies that people offer here, the subtle energies of practice. You know what people are offering through their work, but especially through their presence.

“Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

SB: What is the organizational and decision making structure like here?

St: Our center is owned by the Avalokita Foundation, which we discussed before, and this group also makes up the General Council which guides the outline of our work here: what we want to do, which teachers we have, what renovations and improvements we need, like building or buying new benches around the property, and other suggestions. We meet at least once per year, for a 3-4 day retreat, possibly with Helga and Karl present. This bigger council creates smaller councils, like the Council of the Residents or the Council of Finances. If you want to buy small things, then you ask the resident community. But if you want to buy something more expensive, like when we bought the lawnmower, we go to the GC and say, “This is the cost, what do you think about it?” Then the GC discusses and decides what we do. There is also a Dharma Teacher council, including Helga and Karl, just to review our situation, and offer some suggestions here and there. This is our structure, and it flows very easily. We are still very happy about it.

SB: How do you meet all together?

St: Whether we meet in person or on Skype, the practice is our base. We begin every meeting with 3 sounds of the bell. Then we decide the sequence of speaking, and everybody may speak without being interrupted. In the beginning, everyone shares how they are doing, so we have a chance to hear each other, laugh, catch up with what is happening for those who live farther away, and create this connection again. Then we start discussing each of our agenda points, always sharing one at a time. At the end, we finish with 3 sounds of the bell and say goodbye. In our Skype meetings, we feel the support of this style of communication. We continue in the same way, whether during a retreat, meeting in person, or on Skype. The practice is always the ground of our work.

When we created the Avalokita Foundation, we incorporated the 14 Mindfulness Trainings into the charter and in a way that was legally accepted. From the beginning, our center is based on these principles.

We also have internal rules when we meet as a larger council. We created internal agreements, for every situation. In our residential community as well, we have written agreements, like what to do when you are responsible for facilitating practice, and for many other situations. When we show clearly how we do things, others can easily come and learn to facilitate the practice. We have several committed friends who have trained here and help us with rotation tasks.

“The practice is always the ground of our work.”

The Founders Community of Avalokita, over 9 years later after their original visioning session.

SB: Do both of you offer retreats together as Dharma Teachers?

St: Sometimes as OI members, I know for myself, that we have the tendency to offer the practice to others, but we don’t practice ourselves. We forget to practice. Of course it’s a good thing to feel the beauty of the practice, and want to offer to others, but we jump there. So we have to jump back, just to offer the practice to ourselves. And then maybe later we can offer the practice to others, based upon our own experience. This is why I received the lamp transmission in 2006 but have never given a Dharma talk. I feel that we have great teachers already. We have Thay and many Brothers and Sisters who have come here: Sr Annabelle, Sr Gina, Sr Bi Nghiem, Kaira Jewel, Richard Brady… so many good teachers. They don’t need me as a Dharma teacher if I just repeat something. I want to experiment more with myself, and if there is something that I can share, I will share, but not just to repeat something I already heard in a talk. This is very important.

Thay is a true model, he really embodies the teachings. Can you say in English, “Walk your talk”? This for me is the base, because people feel the difference. When you really embody the teachings, something greater is passed on. When Thay speaks it, you feel it. On the other hand, it has been said in our tradition that, “Even if you don’t really experience what you’re teaching, then it’s still good to teach anyways, because others will listen and make the experience.” So this is still good I suppose. But for me, I cannot say something that I don’t experience. This is just for me, and my truth, to be honest. Letizia is of the same vision about that. We have perfect dharma talk videos to watch already (laughs).

SB: Well, you are living your dharma talk. It’s a different kind of teaching.

St: I try to realize what Thay says, “My life is my message”. This is the most important.

L: That’s the main question. It’s not necessary to have a school to teach.

SB: However, I would still love to attend a retreat with both of you, really, as a couple and living the practice here. There are few couples who are Dharma teachers and can share about their practice of being in relationship.

St: Now I think he is flower watering!

SB: Well, we have received so much from the both of you already today. Thank you so much. It feels like we are here with Karl and Helga right now.

St: Grazie, Grazie

Our last night with the residents of Avalokita, as well as Elina and Michael, having just led a retreat. We celebrated our Sangha experience together Italian-style, at a delicious pizzeria.


This is the 3rd and last offering of the Avalokita series. To discover more about Avalokita's creation, we invite you to read Part 1 and Part 2.

To learn more about Avalokita Centre, including retreats and other offerings, please visit their website at Avalokita.it  or their Facebook page.


"If you Practice Well, the Money will Come".... Part 2 of Avalokita Center in Italy

Interview with Stefano and Letizia, Part 2

Founding Members and Dharma Teachers of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

Sanghabuild (SB): What do you feel is most important to share about the founding of this beautiful center and community?

Stefano (St): I will share about the vision, because this is so important. The center is what it is now, but we started with a vision and still grow with that vision. This is important to keep in our hearts because we developed a vision for a resident core community like what we have now, but bigger. We dreamed of at least 5 residents, because Thay has often said that you need at least 5 to have a community. But we make it work anyways with the 3 of us for now.

When our core community becomes stable and settled enough, we intend to create a bigger circle of families and children, a multi-generational community of practitioners. We imagine how many people who could profit from the practice and the community. It is the core community that keeps the fire going. People could practice meditation together in the morning and then go out to work, or school, as socially engaged practitioners. They could receive support from the community and then bring Thay’s practice into the world. This is still the vision we keep in our hearts. Maybe we will realize it in 10 years or 15 years.

It was important for us to be clear about this vision when we were looking for a place to buy – one with the potential to grow up, not for just one house. Now we have the possibility to build 3 or 4 thousand square meters.

SB: Wow, that is a lot of space to grow! That is over 40,000 square feet (by US measurements).

St: We developed this in the beginning with the city council, and now we have permission to build when we are ready. If we had not had that strong vision initially, then we may have settled for something else.

Meandering up the spacious fields behind Avalokita, the views are remarkable… a forest valley below and green to golden fields across.  One can see how much room there is for this community build and grow.

Letizia (L): I want to add a small point. When we speak of both the resident core community and the families who would reside here, the ‘residents’ are those who live and work here and don’t have another job. They dedicate their lives to the place. This is a very important point, because in this way, there’s not a dispersion of energy. Our vision also included those who have the wish to live in a practice center, but who don’t have the possibility to leave their work or their family, but who could still profit from living here.

Because when I left my job, I was living alone and had no children so it was easier to leave my job. But if I had children or a husband, maybe I would not be here now. This possibility gives families with children a wonderful opportunity to breathe new fresh life into them. At the same time, I feel that dedicating our lives as ‘residents’ to the practice center is important because we can keep the energy concentrated and not dispersed. This is important, like what Sr Chan Khong said, “If you practice well, the center will manifest”. So it’s important to keep the question alive in ourselves: “Where do I put my energy?”  I want my thoughts and actions each day to go in the direction of our vision.

When our core community becomes stable and settled enough, we intend to create a bigger circle of families and children, a multi-generational community of practitioners. We imagine how many people who could profit from the practice and the community. 

A broad community of both young adults and all-age Sangha members gather after a long hiking meditation through the forests and hills surrounding Avalokita.

St: When we were looking for a place, we were also looking for money. We were looking for an affordable place, in a beautiful environment, well-preserved, with good air and water. We visited many places, some in Tuscany that were more expensive, and others that were affordable and nice but too far from any center. If you have to drive more than 20 or 30 minutes to town, it becomes a problem if you need a doctor or hospital, or take children to school every day. If our vision is to have this bigger community then we also need to be close enough to schools. So, slowly, we passed on many places in Italy.

The place in Tuscany was very beautiful and several people really liked it. We even invited Karl and Helga to come and visit it with us to have their perspective. Yes, it was beautiful, yes it was nice, but it was more money than we had, and we would have to borrow money by taking some loans to pay for it. When we asked Karl’s advice, he said to us, “The question is whether you want to be practicing together, or whether you want to run a business. Because if you settle here and buy this place, then you will have to be constantly wondering how to pay for such a place, and this will distract you from your practice.” And so, from then on, the same question continued to guide us. Whenever we need to make any decision about something that may “improve” our center, we ask ourselves:  ‘Will this support us in our practice?’. If yes, we include it, otherwise we drop it. In this way we understood that the place in Tuscany was not the ideal place for us, that it would give us too many cows, as Thay says. (A story of the Buddha, in which a man lost many of his cows and was deeply distressed. Therefor, if we can let go of ‘cows’ we don’t need, then we can live more freely).  So we let it go, and patiently kept looking for another opportunity.

It’s important to keep this question alive in ourselves “Where do I put my energy?” I want my thoughts and actions each day to go in the direction of our vision.

Good air, clean water, well preserved, and a beautiful environment?…. Yes!

One day, a friend living not for from here, Francesca, heard about this place, and said, “Why don’t you come have a look?” And so I came here with her and it was quite a ruin. But it was a beautiful place, wth the mountains, spaciousness, and fields. So we said, ‘Why Not?’, and we asked the community to come and take a look. We invited Helga and Karl to come again for the 2nd time to look at a property. A group of 15 of us visited the place together. We walked up the hill and sat close to the big oak and cherry tree on top, for half an hour, just to look and feel. Then we said, “Why not? This is good!”

The first point of business was to discuss with the town and county governance here, whether they would like to support us in our intentions. ‘Were we truly welcome here?’, we wondered. We didn’t know. We had two or three meetings with people in the village at the elementary school, and we explained what we wished to do. They shared with us that they had had a bad experience with a previous community. So we explained our intentions in depth and spoke with their mayor.

We shared that we wanted to start small, but then have the possibility to grow and expand. So we made an agreement with them, before purchasing the place in full, that it would be possible to build 3 to 4 thousand square meters once we bought it. And that’s a lot to build. This was very important. We have to think ahead that places can really grow up. It may not, who knows? But if we start here and outgrow the space, then we have to go to another place and start over again. So we wanted to really build at the right place.

The southern view of Avalokita, with villages behind and city life below. The center is intimately surrounded by nature; however, schools, a hospital, markets, and amazing pizzerias are just down the hill or across the valley.

SB: Backing up a little bit, I’m curious, when you spoke with the community here and the schools, how were you received? And did you share that you were Buddhist?

St: Sure, sure we told them. In 2008, after we bought the place, we had a day of mindfulness with the people in the village. We invited them to come and have lunch together, and we explained our practice of walking meditation. Here in the village, there was nothing like that. Everybody came and asked questions, and we showed a video of Thay. Over time we created more and more connections. Now, during Christmas time, Easter, and New Years, some of us attend mass, and we know the priests. Also after the earthquake in 2009, and last year as well, their church was partly destroyed, and so we invited the priests to come here and offer mass. They found another solution, but what is important is that we asked them. “If you want to come at 10 o’clock, well we won’t have a dharma talk until 11 o’clock.” So now we feel a very good relationship with the village. They appreciate what we do, and they say, ‘Ah, you make this very beautiful, we love how you care for the borders.” We have planted many beautiful plants and flowers near our neighbors’ property.

Avalokita is part of a village, reaching out to their neighbors and lovingly caring for their adjoining gardens.

SB: How did you acquire the finances for buying the land?

As for the money, our spiritual tradition has an answer: ‘Sraddha’, which in Sanskrit means ‘trust’. Trust in the practice. It’s one of the 5 powers taught by the Buddha. So we founded a trust, an organization, to gather money and raise the funds. In Italy there is no fundraising tradition, not at all like in the United States.

One day we shared our concerns about raising enough money to buy the place, with Sr. Chan Khong. She smiled gently at us and looked at us for some moments. She reinforced our trust and shared, “If you practice well, the money will come.” Wow! So this was our inspiration to continue to practice and vision together.

So we decided to create a core group of people who were very dedicated to this project, and would meet once a month together for 2 years. Every month, we enjoyed a mindfulness weekend in a different part of Italy, to practice sitting and walking meditation, mindful eating, listen to dharma talks, and so on. The rest of our time in the weekend, we sat together in a circle and shared our visions for the future center. The overarching guideline for our practice together was, “There is no way to a practice center, the practice Center is the way”. And we developed trust that the money will come.

In reality, this was exactly what happened. Practitioners started giving donations from 5 euros to 100,000 euros. So by the end, we gathered over one million euros.  

SB: A million?! Wow, that’s incredible you were able to do that. I’m so impressed.

St: To buy the place it was not so expensive, about 200,000 euros. But it required many many renovations, lots of work. So we needed money, and money came. I have to say that the majority of the money came from our inner circle: practitioners and OI members, and not just from one single donor. We received donations from one to two hundred people and this brought a lot of energy to our project. So also from this point of view, our center has been a community creation. 

“There is no way to a practice center, the practice Center is the way”

She smiled gently at us and looked at us for some moments. She reinforced our trust and shared, “If you practice well, the money will come.”

SB: That is truly amazing. When did you start the financial planning and fundraising?

St: In 2003 we started gathering money using a Trust with the name “Towards a Community of Mindful Living.”  In 2008, we bought this place, closed the Trust and created the “Avalokita Foundation” that is still composed of about 30 dedicated people, and which owns the place. The renovations lasted 4 years, while we continued to raise funds. On April 22nd, 2012, we inaugurated the center together with over 200 people, including many from the village nearby and all the workers who had contributed to renovate the building. 

SB: Can you share about how it was bought?

In the past, this place was a ceramic workshop, as this area is well known for its clay and ceramics in Italy. Before that, it was a preschool and kindergarten. When we arrived here, the owner was so happy to sell to us. He had other people who were also interested to buy, but he really appreciated our project and supported us. He really wanted to sell to us because he knew that the place would have a beautiful future.

L: The owner, he told us, ‘I would really like to sell this place to you, because in this way, it will be owned by everybody.’

St: He was very understanding of what we wanted to do. He is still alive, and lives in the village here. He is 85 years old, and he comes every so often to visit us.

The founders of Avalokita, celebrating both the Centre’s completion as well as their Sanghahood together.

SB: So you bought the place in December in 2007. So that was almost 4 years, by the time you moved in, in 2011?

St: Yes, because As I shared, in the beginning, we had to clarify with the municipality about the project and our long term planning to build more upon the property just to be sure. When we bought it, we just invested part of the money. But before we started restoring the place, we had to be sure that there was support. So also in the meantime, we created the Avalokita Foundation. Once this place was bought by one of us, he then gave this place to the Foundation.

SB: And that was one of the big donors?

S: Yes, but that person bought this place with the money of everybody. It was really a trust process because everyone trusted everybody else. And he was a dharma teacher. So everyone gave their money to one person, and the person who bought the place then made a donation to the Foundation. So it’s owned by the Foundation.

He told us, “I would like to sell this place to you, because in this way, it will be owned by everybody.” 

SB: What was difference between the Trust and the Avalokita Foundation, and does this entity make decisions for the practice center?

St: When we found this place, we had part of the money, yet not all of it. Slowly we investigated how to manage it. The ‘Trust’ and the ‘Foundation’ are 2 different things: the Trust opened in 2003 to gather money initially; it involved only me and Silvia, another founder. We closed the Trust in 2008 as soon as Avalokita Foundation was created and took its place.

The Avalokita Foundation is a financial foundation; it was the right means and instrument for us. Maybe in the US it’s different, but here you have people in a group, which is a closed group, you have a vision and money, and you wish to realize a goal. A foundation is a good instrument to do that.

When we created it, we invited all the Italian OI members to join, and many of them did. Our Foundation totaled 25 OI members and other practitioners, who were deeply linked and committed to the center, including Helga and Karl (guiding Dharma teachers from Germany). The Foundation members are involved in the General Council, which makes decisions for the Center, including finances. This is a very living organ in our community body. Every year, those who no longer have enough conditions to participate, they leave the Foundation. Meanwhile, we invite another committed practitioner and community member to enter. Thus, the core community is constantly renewing and restoring itself, while maintaining its roots

A breathtaking sunrise manifests directly over Avalokita, as a new day dawns for this community’s blooming center of practice.

SB: It seems that this was really the right place for you.

St: I don’t know, but this is the place! Right or wrong, this is what we have now, but we like it. We like it very much. I would not want to live anywhere else. Why? Well, what do I want to do with my life? Here my life has a beautiful continuation. I would not like to go back to Rome, or my job. For Marco and Leticia also, it’s our life, we have no doubts about it. Because when you work here, you see people arrive with sadness. But after they stay here, they leave with this (points to a big smile on his face). It’s a great great gift, something that gives back to you. It’s so great, it’s the most important thing that somebody can give back to you. To see people’s lives transform, from this place, from what you do here, and how you support it. It’s such a great gift, a great reward.

Right or wrong, this is what we have now, but we like it. We like it very much. I would not want to live anywhere else… Here my life has a beautiful continuation.

SB: I can see that you’re Helga’s student, because she says the same thing about living in Intersein.

St: This is the experience of a community practice center; whether you do it here or in the US, you experience the same. Whether people are living in Rome, Milan or wherever, the city is stressful. When they come here and just arrive at a beautiful place, with gardens, flowers, a mountain, and community, it is a real gift.

L: They can come here, change their rhythm, and slow down. It happens like a magic trick.

 “To see people’s lives transform, from this place, from what you do here, and how you support it. It’s such a great gift, a great reward.”

“When they come here and just arrive at a beautiful place, with gardens, flowers, a mountain, and community, it is a real gift.”


To continue learning about the development of Avalokita's creation, we invite you to follow Part 3, the last of the Avalokita series...


Part 1 of Avalokita: "There is No Way to a Practice Center.... The Practice Center is the Way!"

Interview with Stefano and Letizia,

Founding Members and Dharma Teachers of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

Sanghabuild (SB): Please share with us about your journey. How was this incredible center and community created here?

Stefano (St): Thank you for this opportunity for us also to remember. Sometimes we are so taken in the present, it’s a beautiful moment, but also we can forget to remember.

What is original in this story, is that this center has been the fruit of a community, from the material point of view, but also from the spiritual point of view. This is something I feel is very precious here. The story actually starts between 1993 and 1999, when Karl and Helga were living in Plum Village. Since Helga speaks Italian very well, she was responsible for the Italian families. There were not so many Italian OI members like there are now; at the time there were just 5 of us. Being in touch with Helga and Karl, we developed a great appreciation for their work there: the way they presented Thay’s teachings to Italians, their incredibly generous availability to listen to us, offering us personal consultations, and so on. Many strong connections were created during this time between the Italian Sangha with Plum Village and Thay, because we had somebody closer to us who we could address, ask questions, or go to for support.

Karl and Helga in Plum Village, France, after having received the Dharmacharya lamp transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1996.

Then in 1997, Thay suggested that his students create communities of mindful living everywhere in the world. It was a really strong invitation to the community, above all to the lay community. So in that period, the Italian Sangha invited Karl and Helga to come to Italy and create a practice center. It was just an idea… but a seed was already planted!

At the same time, Karl Schmied, a German Dharma teacher and wealthy businessman, invited Karl and Helga to go to Germany, to open a practice center with him. This would soon become Intersein Center. So, we admit that the Italians were a little bit disappointed (laughs). But what could we say? They already had a beautiful place there, and so we just accepted that it was like that. But!… The desire and aspirations were still there. After Intersein was built, the Italian OI members started to visit Intersein regularly in addition to Plum Village. We deeply appreciated the place, its beauty, how they cared for the gardens and buildings, and of course the support from Helga and Karl as teachers.

The forest of beech and fir trees surrounding Intersein are illuminated first in the early morning sunshine.

Helga and Karl also supported the Italian community by offering weeklong retreats in Italy, starting in 1999, which created more and more connections. They took care of our budding OI community. With their support over the years, we have grown from only 4 OI members to now 63, including 7 dharma teachers in Italy!

Helga and Karl made a strong bridge between us and Thay’s teachings, especially about being a community. They really supported us to create a real community. Before the center, the community.

So already at that time before we started the project, when our OI community had a problem, we went to Intersein. This was easy as we already had a weeklong retreat every year in the summer at Intersein. We went there for one week in July, and they came here for one week in August. When our OI community was still young, we had some real challenges. I remember how they sat with us in the Intersein upper meditation hall for hours over many days, supporting us to go through it together. Every time the dinner bell was invited, people found us in the meditation hall discussing our OI challenges. At the time, they were younger and more available. Now they are older and have to take better care of their energy and time.

“They really supported us to create a real community. Before the center, the community.”

Helga receives the lamp transmission ceremony from Thay, ordaining her as a lay Dharma Teacher in the Plum Village tradition.

The story of our practice center is the story of the OI community in Italy. This is very important. I have an image which I love regarding our connection with Plum Village, Thay, the monastics, Karl and Helga. Thay is like a father; he is our beloved father. But as a father, he travels a lot, and he has a lot of kids every where. Spiritual children of course (laughs). So we have one aunt and one uncle to help take care of Thay’s children, who can address their nieces and nephews and say why the father is engaged in so much wonderful work in the world. And so this is the image for me – they are the uncle and aunt, that supports the parents’ vision. When a child stays with the grandparents, perhaps they are not as strict as the father and mother. Karl and Helga, however, they are quite strict as uncle and aunt, sometimes more strict than Thay! But it’s to give us good direction and motivation for practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh leading walking meditation in Plum Village, sometime during the mid-1990’s.

In 2002, inspired by Thay’s invitation to create mindfulness communities, and also inspired by the experience of Intersein, which was already in its third year, we asked Helga and Karl, “Why don’t you come to Italy anyway?” We thought, “Maybe there is space for them to come here at least part time.” So they were really wonderful to say, “Okay, okay, you start and we will come.” So in 2003, we started the project to create this center. We had the encouraging idea that they could come and help us, because they also had Karl Schmied to help with Intersein, the other co-founder of Intersein. We started with this idea and then slowly, slowly, we began to understand that it was only us who were in charge! And this was a big learning for our community. Because in the beginning we had the idea that Helga and Karl would solve everything, and we would be able to simply enjoy our practice center (laughs). But no. Slowly slowly we understood that we had to be responsible for everything, while receiving their guidance. And so we grew up slowly like that, as a community.

Karl and Helga guided and encouraged us by saying, “Okay, you can create a group in the OI community, to put together a vision of the place, and so that when the center is ready, you will have a very clear and shared vision, about what you want to do here. Yes, we have models – we have Plum Village, we have Intersein, but maybe you can manifest an Italian practice center!”

This became the best period in our community. For those of us who were able, we gathered once a month, calling ourselves, the ‘Explorative Core’, to understand our direction together. We met in person from Friday to Sunday and with a similar program we have here: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, silence in the morning. And in the afternoon we had visioning sessions together. It was very interesting, because at first you may think that everyone is fairly clear about what we are going to create together. Then you discover that everybody has their own ideas! Somebody wants a volleyball field, somebody wants to have sheep, somebody wants an organic garden…and on and on and on. So in this way through our visioning sessions, everyone was able express themselves and be heard, as well as have a chance to look through the community’s eyes.

The community of Intersein gathers to share experiences and insights during Dharma Sharing.

“Yes, we have models – we have Plum Village, we have Intersein, but maybe you can manifest an Italian practice center!”

Over time, we understood that we had to focus ourselves on what could support our practice. For example, personally I would like to have an organic garden here, with vegetables and big tomato plants… but we are only three residents now. You can already see in the evening how much we water all the fruit trees. So we discussed, “Will an organic garden support our practice?” “No?” “Okay, not now.” So we dropped it. This happened similarly for many things, so many ideas we have had. Every idea is welcome, but it always comes down to the main question: ‘Does this support our practice or not?’ Then, it’s very clear and easy to decide. It allowed us to put together a vision that we have realized.

SB: Who offered this question? It’s simple but it’s very deep.

St: It was from Karl. Many times he told us, ‘When we have a Sangha meeting at Intersein-Zentrum, I am full of ideas. So I sit there and I share my ideas. And then we ask, “But does this support our practice? No? Okay, I drop it.”

It was a very powerful time for many of us, creating connections between this group, really building trust in each other, and trust in the process. We learned a simple process of decision making, like the Sanghakarman, in which we cultivate our views and refine insights together as a Sangha body. This was a beautiful teaching for me, a wonderful period of growing up as a person and as a community, in that experience with the explorative core group.

We pause during walking meditation at Avalokita, looking at this beloved mountain range as one Sangha body.

“Everyone was able to express themselves and to be heard, as well as have a chance to look through the community’s eyes.”

SB: How many people were in the explorative core group?

St: We were about 15. Because remember, the OI was about 20 at the time. And also we involved 3 or 4 friends who were not OI members, but were really involved with it.

SB: So 15, and most were OI, except for a few? And did those first 15 stay until the end?

St: The majority yes. Our deep experience of community building in this way made it possible for the founding members to stay engaged and responsible for our center. I’ve heard of many experiences in which those who built the center ended up leaving. Karl offered us this metaphor: “When you go to the jungle and open a path with a machete, it’s a kind of work you offer. But after the path is opened, other people come and continue the path by offering flowers and different things.” In this case, it’s amazing that the same people who started visioning Avalokita 14 years ago, those who cleared the path, they are still here, taking care and planting flowers.

SB: And those people who came together? They were really inspired to have the center?

St: Yes, we were inspired to have a center in the Plum Village tradition, this was very clear. Our foundation and vision was guided by the 14 Mindfulness Trainings, as well as our beloved aunt and uncle, Helga and Karl, and with support of Thay and the monastic community. Every year, we sent Thay a letter, letting him know about the progress of our project, and we shared with him what we’ve been doing whenever he came to Italy. And as I’ll share later, he came here to bless our center.

The community of Avalokita is blooming in ways, including its luscious gardens and radiant lily pond.

So in this way, the center was born with roots well planted in the Plum Village tradition. But, most of us knew nothing about how to manage a lay practice center! So again, we took guidance from Karl and Helga about running an organization and facilitating practice. Some of us lived at Intersein for one month to train, whereas Letizia had lived there for 3 years. And at the time, there was no possibility to have such training at Plum Village as a lay practitioner, although that has changed I think. Here, we have a rotation of facilitators during the retreat. One person is responsible for the bell all day long, from wake up until evening. It takes some training to be present and focused all day long for all the activities and meals. So we learned a lot from Intersein’s experience as a lay practice center, while never forgetting Plum Village as our root temple.

At a few points, deep inspiration came from Sr Chan Khong, who shared with us, “If you want to create a practice center, be a practice center already.” So our group lived this experience together. Our motto became: ‘There is no way to a practice center, practice center is the way.’ We tried to realize this aspiration just to be a practice center even if we didn’t know whether would receive money for the place, or find people to live here full time.

“Deep inspiration came from Sr Chan Khong, who shared with us, ‘If you want to create a practice center, be a practice center already.’ So our group lived this experience together.”

Avalokita’s main building, against a glorious mountain backdrop. The locals call this range “the Italian Tibet”, and it’s easy to see why.

To learn more about the Italian Sangha’s creation of Avalokita, we invite you to follow Part 2 of the Avalokita series…


Gem at the Foot of the Mountain: Welcome to Avalokita, Italy

Welcome to Avalokita,
Beloved Mindfulness Practice Center of Italy

In the first of our two posts on Avalokita, we welcome you on a photo journey through this wonderland of mountainous landscape, vibrant flora, and rock solid community. We will walk and hike through the span of one full day at Avalokita, from red glowing sunrise over the Italian countryside, to glowing mountains in the dark blue twilight. Here at Avalokita, the sun, mountains, fields, and moon are as much a part of the community as the people who live and commune here. Let us now awaken to her early morning summer rose light…

Waking up before the morning bell, taking soft steps through the house, filling a thermos with hot tea, we walk slowly up the rugged field, finding a comfortable spot amidst the straw grass and clods of earth. With each sip of tea, red light over the dark rolling hills grows brighter and brighter…

The burnt red light changes to flaming pinks and orange, all the while filling the mountainside behind us with its glowing spectrum.

Avalokita has awoken.

Like rich golden oolong tea pouring into a clear glass cup, the golden morning light flows in and fills the tea room completely, awakening both orchids and Thay’s calligraphy. Its message is clear and alive in this moment…

“La Pace e la gioia sono possibili”

“Peace and Joy are Possible”

The pond lies motionless under early morning rays. Without a hint of urgency, the lilies take their sweet time to open, and frogs rest after another boisterous night of lusty croaking. But the butterflies and bees already quietly make their breakfast rounds through the garden. Morning meditation is over, yet noble silence continues for the community, quietly and vibrantly alive.

Breakfast in serenity and quiet, as we eat and contemplate…

“This bread is a gift of the entire cosmos”

Every morning after breakfast, whether during retreat or not, the community at Avalokita gathers for Morning Circle. One of three resident practitioners, Letizia guides us in a short meditation to both center our mind and presence individually, and connect us collectively. Then we grasp each others’ hands for a few moments, welcome the day’s activities before us, and share the joy of song.

“Morning has come,

Night is away.

Rise with the sun,

And welcome this day.”

Avalokita stands like a sentinel over the activity bell, ensuring the bell master’s calm and focus as she invites the community for the next gathering.

Behind her, Thay’s words echo throughout the house, a reminder of when he and a delegation of monastics visited the center just after its opening in 2011. Upon walking mindfully up the back hill, between the center and mountains, Thay spoke, “This is a place of healing.” Then Thay offered it a name, “Center of Deep Listening”. Because the Italian translation of had some ambiguous meaning, the founders adapted the name to “Avalokita”, the bodhissatva of great compassion and deep listening.

“Ascolta con Compassion”

“Listen with Compassion.”

The Sangha gathers in the meditation hall for a Dharma discussion, facilitated by Marco, another Avalokita resident practitioner.

On the left is Dharma teacher Michael Schwammberger, former monk and abbot of Son Ha Hamlet in Plum Village, who offered this 5 day retreat at Avalokita. The community invites both lay and monastic Dharma Teachers from around Europe to offer retreats throughout the year.

Sharing in pairs…

Italians love love love to share from the heart, as seen from the rich smile on her beaming face…

And some playful sharing too, never a problem for Italian youth…

Okay, enough sitting inside for us. Let’s take this Sangha magic out and explore!

But keeping our silence, we tune into the world and each other, soaking in cascading mountain reliefs, glorious sunshine, rolling golden fields, abundant wild cherry trees, and more. Each step of our silent strolling bodies is alive and free…

Hungry?  Yum!!!

We break, and pick some wild cherries in the woods. No joke, these grow all over Avalokita’s property and around the region.

Try some, but let’s save enough for a cherry crumble later!

We continue hiking through Avalokita’s hillside of olive groves, 65 trees in total. They cure their own olives here, as well as partner with friends to make fresh olive oil for cooking. The groves are also perfect for a quiet and romantic period of evening sitting meditation.

And you can enjoy some premier organic Italian olive oil with Marco, Avalokita’s unofficial bread master, especially after a hot loaf arrives fresh from the oven.

Some salt and olive oil on delicious homemade bread, along with Marco’s charming Italian accent, “Mangi, Mangi!”, and you know you’ve truly arrived at this Italian Sangha home.

Every evening, the Sangha enjoys either sitting meditation in the hall, or a slow walking meditation outside. This evening, the weather is sparklingly beautiful, and the sunset light is irresistible…  We head outside again for a mellow saunter around the center.

Nothing else to say here …

Here is the pure land. The pure land is here.

Local villagers call this region, “the Italian Tibet.”

Turn around, and see why.

Behold the magic behind our steps….

And we arrive back home, watching dual sunsets unfurl their majesty of lights before our eyes, and at our feet.

We end this evening with a tea meditation, filled with musical offerings that respond to the day’s many wonders and teachings. Everyone has a turn to share their tune, inspiration, and laughter with the community, as we close the retreat together in rhythm and harmony.

An aspiring rock star by day, this young man shares the depths of his gifts and spirit with the Sangha by night.

We know that he will share his awakening and compassion with countless other youth as he passes through this sacred center and blessed community.

As the evening closes, we meander outside the meditation hall to commune with the refreshing night sky before bed.

Always awake, magnificent, and solidly present at any hour, we bow goodnight to the mountains embracing us.

Goodnight and thank you, Avalokita


Stories from Plum Village to Intersein: Interview with With Karl and Helga

“We want our practice to be an expression of our deepest gratitude”

Here, we head straight into the stories and teachings of Intersein Founders, Karl and Helga. Splashing together interviews with their written stories, and using colorful anecdotes of the past to paint their teachings for us in the present, Karl and Helga offer a living window into the first years of Plum Village. Their early encounters with Thich Nhat Hanh (referred to affectionately by his students as Thay, meaning teacher), and six years as residents in Plum Village paved a foundation for later building the most established lay practice center in the tradition, Intersein-Zentrum. Weaving in and out of their stories, we offer old photos that few have seen of the very early days in Plum Village, including Karl and Helga’s building and stewardship of West Hamlet (a lay residence in Plum Village).

The historic meeting between Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied, in front of the buildings which would soon become known as West Hamlet. Karl Schmied and a Vietnamese-German friend bought the property which Helga and Karl were tasked with completely renovating and overseeing for the next 3 years.

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How did you arrive in Plum Village and where did your spiritual journey begin?

It all began in May 1992. But our spiritual journey and search had already been underway for fourteen years: it started in 1978 in Poona with Bhagwan/Osho, leading us to large international communities in England and America, to monasteries in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Japan and Thailand, and finally to Italy, to study and learn in the Tibetan-Buddhist tradition at the Lama Tsong Khappa Institute in Pomaia, south of Pisa.

When Thay and Sister Chan Kong arrived at the Institute in May 1992 to lead a retreat, it was as though we had run into old spiritual friends after a long, long time. Although barely recognizable, there was an intense feeling of closeness. Thay’s presence, his teachings and practice, gave us the feeling that we had arrived home after a very long journey. Encouraged by Sister Chan Kong, we took part in the three week June Retreat in Plum Village, and at the end we knew, ‘This is our spiritual practice, this is the language we understand and want to learn.’ We were completely clear that we needed a Sangha to progress along our chosen path.

The next step was the Winter Retreat 1992/93, to learn what it meant to live in a spiritual community. We were deeply moved by the cheerful warmth of our Vietnamese brothers and sisters in the Dharma, practiced and celebrated with them, and enjoyed the presence of Thay, especially listening to his Dharma talks while the whole community was squeezed into the kitchen of Lower or Upper Hamlet. When Thay subsequently asked, ‘Why don’t you just come and live with us’, we decided to move to Plum Village.

That was in May 1993. Our new life had begun.

Summer retreat participants with Helga and Karl in the early 1990's when the community was still small with only a few monastics. In the next decade, Plum Village would soon have thousands of summer retreatants very year.

Helga: Our new ‘home’ was the former kitchen in the Persimmon building, one of the large, old farmhouses in Lower Hamlet. We exchanged all the comforts of our large house and the wonderful landscapes of Tuscany for a small, dark and damp room. The view was no longer over the rolling hills of Tuscany and the Mediterranean, but rather rusty washy machines. For three days I wrestled with the question of whether I had made the right decision. Listening to Thay’s talks, practicing mindfulness, observing my mind, I realized that I had not come to Plum Village to indulge my own likes and avoid my dislikes; rather I had come for one reason only: to get to know my own mind and cultivate Bodhicitta.

Shortly afterwards I received an emphatic reminder of this from Thay. It turned out that we were given responsibility for the renovation of an old building. We saw this as a challenge and a chance to drop all our ideas and expectations and to do all that was needed and desired of us with joy. After we had successfully renovated the house we showed Thay around, admittedly with pride, and with the expectation of a few words of praise. Thay must have felt this as he turned to me and said, ‘Helga, this is not why you came to Plum Village.’ Although a little disappointed I could accept what he said, and then a few days later understand that I was still very dependent on praise and criticism. Thanks to this direct, personal comment by Thay, I was able to understand my reasons for coming to Plum Village more clearly.

After two weeks of of living in Plum Village, Sister Chan Khong presents Helga and Karl with a task. Two German friends in the Sangha had donated an old crumbling building and beautiful piece of land not far from Plum Village. Karl and Helga were asked to make it a Sangha home. With shovels in hand and friends to help, Karl stands outside of the dilapidated old building, later to be known as West Hamlet.

    

It's hard to believe that these rooms would soon become a beautiful meditation hall and dining room. Helga works with a friend to completely renovate the ramshackle stone walls.

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Karl: During the Winter Retreat, Thay gave his Dharma talks (Sundays and Thursdays) alternately in the kitchens of Lower Hamlet and Upper Hamlet. Even today I can still clearly see the small kitchen of Lower Hamlet before me: Thay sat against the one long wall with the large black oven to his right; opposite him, perhaps six or seven meters, was the kitchenette where food was prepared on large gas rings. In this intimate space, up to 30 of us huddled together... therefore, we were cosy and warm. I had taken on the honorable task of recording Thay’s Dharma talks, and had acquired the necessary equipment.

On one Sunday I was also the ‘Bell Master’, which meant I had to invite the bell before, during and after the talk in ‘masterly’ fashion. I had positioned the bell in a raised spot on the sideboard behind me, and had my equipment before me on the table. For some reason I was not able to achieve a particularly elegant state of concentration, and this was reflected in the sound of the bell. As the sound died away I heard Thay’s voice, ‘Karl, come!’ As I turned around shocked, the next sentence arrived, ‘And bring the bell with you.’ It seemed like an eternity before we, the bell and I, reached Thay, and I put the bell down next to him on the table. And then came Thay’s loving hand which guided mine in inviting the bell. A great tension in me disappeared. Only intuition now. Him and me, just that. I stood in this atmosphere of loving attention without the slightest hint of blame or rebuke, just goodwill.

After 10 minutes, he was satisfied. I went back to my seat and Thay began his talk. At the end, several mainly Western Dharma friends approached me with compassion and sympathy – rebuked before the entire community?!

No. It was the most impressive experience of Thay and his message: peace in one person creates peace in another.

Helga sharing a cup of tea and wide smiles with her teacher while still residing in Plum Village.

"The manner in which Thay teaches the Dharma and the Practice is both gentle and simple, yet also deep. And always unconventional. We cannot hold onto knowledge, should not pass on empty words and a practice that has been drilled into us. And he dedicatedly helps us to only teach what we ourselves have realized. On the one hand this still remains for me a great challenge, and on the other, it liberates me and gives me the encouragement to be myself."  - Karl

For one year, Lower Hamlet in Plum Village was a completely lay community while the monastics lived in the other hamlets. Thay offered a ceremony to present Helga as the abbess of Lower Hamlet during that period. Plum Village was later led completely by monastics. Karl and Helga stayed there for over 6 years during all of these changes. In 1998, their beloved Dharma brother, Karl Schmied, made a proposition to them to build a lay practice community together in Germany. 

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What was your inspiration for moving from Plum Village to Intersein?

Helga: I remember when I was in Plum Village, in 93 or 94, and Thay said, “The noblest task that you ever can do is to build community. The noblest task is building a community that can reduce the suffering in the world, and to be there for people to transform. But first we have to transform, and then we’ll be able to help people to transform. So living 6 years in Plum Village, I knew that this is the lifestyle that I wanted to live. Otherwise, other things don’t interest me. And after 6 years, we thought, “This is our life now,” and we wanted to do the same thing in Germany that we experienced in Plum Village. This was our vision, to live this kind of life that Thay lived. And therefore we did...

In May 1999, Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied bought an old hotel in the Bavarian countryside in south eastern Germany, near the Austrian border. Before launching the new center and moving in, they agreed that it was necessary to completely renovate the old building with its 20 bedrooms, pub and restaurant. For about one year a worker form a neighboring village did all the major work, with some guiding assistance from the founders. Karl and Helga continued to live in Plum Village during this time while overseeing the project. They believed that it was essential to move in together only when the house was near completion, in order to begin their community life by focusing on practice, and not simply on construction. Whatever was left to be done, which was still a lot, could be done in the working meditation period together, or “doing things joyfully period” as they called it. They finally moved in with two Sangha friends and began their new life of community practice together. After just a few years, their center was thriving and became a spiritual refuge for the greater Sangha in Germany. Their training in Plum Village and close relationship to Thay created a foundation for the community's strength and stability of daily practice.

What are some lessons that you have learned and can share with us?

Karl and Helga: One of the principles of our Sangha: never, even in difficult or seemingly pressing situations, put the practice aside, skip the scheduled activities. Yes, there is a lot to do for a small group of people – running a big center and many retreats, being there for many guests – and there are a lot of fascinating ideas and projects. But the main question is: is it in accordance with the life we would like to live, does it fit into our schedule, is it really necessary? Through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increased and radiated out. People were intrigued by this concentrated and light atmosphere, noticing, how so much work was done with calm and ease, and how this contrasted with their own unskillful ways of their daily life. So, most people came back again and again, staying for even longer periods – depending on their time and financial resources – to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Refreshed and with new insights they return to their families and workplaces – and coming back, they report their experiences, sharing their successes and difficulties.

Karl Schmied with Karl and Helga Riedl together at Intersein

Helga: When I arrived in Plum Village I was not aware how I was being pulled one way and another by my preconceived ideas and opinions. For 40 years we had not felt comfortable in our culture. This caused us to leave Germany. For over 20 years we travelled in Asia and did not have the least intention of returning to Germany. The county that attracted us most was India, our spiritual homeland. Thay must have noticed and it felt like he was talking directly to me when in one of his talks he put his finger on his heart and said ‘India is here’. I could hear myself spontaneously answer, ‘No Thay, for me India is India.’

When in 1999 our Dharma brother Karl Schmeid asked whether we would be willing to open a practice centre in Germany together with him, I only tentatively agreed upon the condition that I could spend 2 months a year in India. After returning from my second stay in India and after a long meditation, I asked myself the question, ‘How is it possible that Thay is always at home where he is, and what is it that prevents me from experiencing this for myself?’ It became clear to me that I had created an image in my mind that reflected my preferences, attachments and expectations but had nothing to do with reality. As a result of all of this I was able to free myself from the fixed idea that I needed to go to India, and to make peace with Germany. Not least of all, I no longer rejected the long, cold winter months, but rather came to see them as a productive time for introspection and meditation. So I finally understood what Thay meant at the time when he pointed to his heart with his finger and said ‘India is here’. However, now it was my own experience, which made it all the more liberating.

"For ourselves we see only one way of expressing our gratitude for all we have received: through our practice, and by passing on what we have received from him as well as we can and circumstances permit."

Helga and Karly each individually received the Dharma Lamp Transmission from Thay in 1996, offering them boundless trust and encouragement to teach the Dharma.

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“Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, that means to live under the same roof for twenty four hours in the spirit of the six harmonies.”

What has been your Vision for Intersein?

Karl: “The emphasis for us is always transformation and healing. You can help and support what is now referred to as evolutionary psychology. That means, humanity needs to raise its consciousness out of its kind of conditioned mind into a kind of a higher mind. Adn that is actually what Buddhism wants….

So we have to raise the consciousness, into a different state, you can call it a nirvana-state consciousness, where you don’t have such conflict, but you have wisdom, compassion and all these kinds of things. And then by itself you don’t have dukkha and don’t create dukkah (a Buddhist term reflecting our mind's tendency towards unsatisfactoriness or suffering). And then you are a lamp for other people. You are not a lamp for other people just because you are aware. That is nonsense, it doesn’t help. Awareness is to be ware of where you are stuck, and to help you raise your mind into a different kind of a mind. That is what we are here for.

Helga: “What we want is for people to come here and feel attracted to really transform their deep suffering. And this is not every person’s interest, and this can be difficult. When we have retreats, it’s first for ourselves, and then we can share what we have learned with others. The aim is just to transform. The more we dive in, we see how deep rooted the suffering is. So we think, “Ah, we still have to learn.” And this keeps us moving, learning, and transforming. The more difficult it is, the more we say, “Ah I didn’t expect this, I thought that I was already done with this.” But then we say, “Oh, okay, another time.” Although it’s sometimes painful, but behind the pain, is the liberation, the freedom, because you have a chance now to tackle it. And this is what we actually want. We want for other people to do the same. First of all we are here to do the same. And when we realize the practice, then we can share it with others.”

Karl and Helga, after having received the Dharma Lamp Transmission, in the large meditation hall of Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

What do you see as your continuation?

Helga: “A continuation, in the sense of Thay’s teachings, is whatever we transmit to the people who come here – they are all our continuation. It’s not the continuation of this place, but our continuation. Like when we see people coming, and they tell us, ‘Ah, I have learned so much!’ So we have a lot of people who are transformed already by being here, and by the way we’ve shared our practice. This is our continuation. And so we are already happy with that.”

Karl: “Our experience now is that you cannot have a lay Sangha over a long period of time without a proper elder. So if you want to know how to really continue, then you need elders, and not only a Sangha. The Sangha comes to the elders. If you have a Sangha without elders, and it’s a kindergarten, then it doesn’t work. So if we don’t have an elder here, when we’re gone, then things are closed. That’s it. It might be bitter, but that’s the way. A Sangha itself, in this kind of lay atmosphere, does not have a continuation.

We had some ideas in the past and they didn’t work. But now, we have a new vision for Intersein’s continuation, and this is why we are so happy that you are here. Because of the international networks of people coming together in Sangha, we can now imagine that these centers can be sustained by the larger global community. You have to stabilize them and have an elder, in the greater Sangha. There are enough elders – a few - but they can shift around and hold places like we do at Avalokita center in Italy. We go to Italy 2 to 3 times a year to help hold the place, and sometimes they come here.

And this could be a new model. I think that is also what your intention and vision is. This might be the future that is possible for these kinds of lay practice centers, if you get these places working together, sharing energy, manpower, and support. For example, let’s say someone has lived in Plum Village or the Happy Farm for one to two years. Why don’t they come here at least for 3 months? They have good energy, and we can support that; they bring in energy, and we hold the energy together. We can shift people around in different communities where they can stay. They don’t need to stay stuck in just one place, which they don’t like. We can do it differently, and that is what you are for (points to us). We have done the old dinosaur stuff!

Thay is certainly right when he says that the next Buddha is a Sangha. But, it’s not the Sangha that he has in mind. It’s not a Sangha on the spot, in one place. It’s a kind of a network Sangha, where everybody knows each other. One can say, ‘Hey why don’t you come over, we need someone in the kitchen.’ ‘Okay, we’ll send you someone over who is good for that.’

So you see that is actually the answer…. Now it’s your job. We’re done here” (and Karl laughs heartily to close the interview together).

Young and enthusiastic souls rejoice among elders and all... A proper celebratory goodbye on our last day after a month long stay at Intersein. 


First Impressions, Deep Impressions: Meet Intersein Teachers, Karl and Helga Riedl

"After having lived in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and lifestyle." 

- Helga and Karl Riedl, upon beginning Intersein Center

From living in large international spiritual communities in the US and Europe, to residing at Plum Village for over 6 years in close proximity to Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and finally to their home practice center in Germany where they have been living and teaching for the past 18 years … it has been an incredible spiritual journey for these pioneering western Dharma Teachers. We will share a combination of personal interviews with them as well as their own written reflections.  In each account, we step deeply into their lives of practice, stories of community living, intimate encounters and lessons with Thay, unique interpretations and teachings of the Dharma, and how they founded the first lay practice center in the Plum Village tradition.

Welcome to founding teachers of Intersein, Karl and Helga Riedl.

 

First, we share with you our first meeting and introduction to them, as well as their unconditional support for our project of researching and writing about lay practice communities. Contrary to how they first met other practitioners at Plum Village in its very early beginnings, our first interaction with them were by email. But I assure you, the impressions they made on us were were no less profound.

About a year ago, I started putting my long-held dreams to tour and research lay practice centers into action. I reached out to these centers, and shared about my aspirations and dreams for this project, how I hoped that it would support other budding lay practice communities, and the greater community of practitioners worldwide. I asked to visit them the following year, and at a reasonable cost due to our shoestring traveling and research budget. Some of the centers didn’t respond back; others ranged from supportive to mildly encouraging. But Helga and Karl’s response was first, and most memorable of any community.

Dear David, right now I almost cannot express in words how much I'm touched by your idea and plan and how much I am excited, that all conditions will be sufficient for you to get it realized. It is kind as if a dream comes true for me that someone in this tradition takes care to let the Mahasangha know about the energy of lay practice centers, already existing and being vital in sharing the Dharma. We are doing that since 1999!

Well, in any case, we will support your project in any way possible for us. So you can stay, live and practice with us for any time you feel appropriate, just being our guest! Without any cost for you! … Please let the Mahasangha know about your project and share that in whatever ways possible.

With heartfelt greetings from Intersein-Zentrum from Karl and Helga.

Their depth of support, enthusiasm, and connection to our aspirations lifted me into elation. I forwarded the email to many friends, enthused that our project was gathering essential support and and could succeed after all. Almost exactly one year later, we were able to finally step foot onto the land of their beloved community and meet them for real.

Karl and Helga walking around the garden, and shining their Zen eyes upon its forms and needs.

Truly Arriving

We would have never guessed that just a week prior, they had their last snowfall over what was now fresh green glades between the forests. With a stroke of sunshine luck, we arrived midday with flawless spring weather. Vanessa chose to lay down in the shade, while I followed a blooming fascination to explore. I walked slowly around the property of seemingly never ending gardens, soaking in the sight of the ponds, budding lilacs and rhododendrons, white-stoned dry river beds, small and stoic sitting Buddha statues, and towering forest trees that encompass more than half of the property. It felt like the barriers between my self and the gardens were dissolving, as each ray of sunshine and each fragrant blossom passed through my being. I didn’t know it at the time, but I understood before I left – that in reality, I was already meeting Karl and Helga. Yes, their presence, caring attention, and service of joy was dug into the roots of each lupin flower and pine tree, and the soil of each stone placed around the ponds. Slowly and steadily, growing every day over the last 18 years, their presence now beams through every inch of this mindfulness oasis.

As I walked through from under canopy of oak and beech trees, I saw a tall, older, and slender man with little hair walking up the path from a building below. He had an air of quiet concentration, while also taking his sweet time walking up the hill. Drawing nearer, I could see he was both smiling and curiously staring me as I approached. “David is that you?”, he asks in a confidently curious but excited way. As I nod and confirm that it’s me, he says, “You’ve finally made it here, have you!?” We meet and embrace without hesitation or a moment of awkwardness. We’d never seen each other before, yet I felt so strongly as if I was being welcomed back home with the love and warmth of a grandfather or an uncle after having been gone for many years. After a few more words, he said, “Come now, it’s time for lunch”, as he took my left arm in his right hand, heading us towards the main building. Walking up and across a green glade together, a feeling of delight in my chest, face, and in the soles of my feet on the grass all told me - I was truly arriving.

As we entered the hall, people had already been serving food and sitting down to eat together, silently and serenely, as is their practice. But Helga noticed me coming in, and so instantly stood up from the table and came over to me near the serving table; also without hesitation, she gave me tenderly strong hug. We both looked up at each other, for just a moment or two, but with open brilliant eyes, and a rich smile that held nothing back. It was only a moment’s exchange, but I knew right then that I was completely at home with her, and at Intersein. I was right were I needed to be – I was at truly home with them.

Over the next 4 weeks, it was more of the same: unconditional support and delight at both having us there to join their deep community practice as well as partner together in our respective Sanghabuilding endeavors. But each week we saw different shades and colors of their personality and wisdom of practice, as we got to know them more personally and intimately. We met individually on three separate occasions in their simple yet elegant quarters (formerly, Thay’s personal Intersein ‘hut’ whenever he came to teach). After every interview, as Vanessa and I walked slowly out of their quarters, the two of us stopped nearby, overlooking the hill and glade of grassy wildflowers. Knowing what we had both experienced, we looked at each other with eyes of both astonishment and deep gratitude, recognizing what precious gifts we had just received.

In a side conversation with Karl one afternoon, he shared that he and Helga have lived in community for over 25 years now! Ironically, the following morning, the Intersein residents surprised them with a birthday party to celebrate 18 years of Intersein! They blew out birthday cake candles, the residents offered a song, and we celebrated this special anniversary with them. In their typical humble and humorous style, they said that Intersein was finally not a young kid anymore. 

As stepping stones on their way to Plum Village, Karl and Helga had lived in a spiritual community in Oregon and England for over a year, as well as a Tibetan Buddhist center in Italy, before meeting Thay and moving to Plum Village. “What is it that keeps us here in community?” he asks with a curious smile, but with eyes that convey some ripe answer behind them. Clarifying that he and Helga get along very well with just the two of them, they could be very happy living together on their own. "There must be something here that keeps us going.... Or we must just be crazy” he says with a big smile again as he looks into me. I respond quickly back at him with my own smile and truth of the matter, “Well, I hear you there. That’s my kind of crazy, too!”

I shared with some friends there that each interview with them was like reading stories of the Buddha and his disciples's lives, the first ancestral teachers of Buddhism.... but in person! Reading accounts of the Buddha, Shariputra, Mahakaccana, and Moggallana in the book, Old Path White Clouds, I felt great awe and respect for their depth of wholeheartedness and skill in sharing the Dharma with so many others who were eager to learn the path. I felt that similar extent of respect, gratitude, and awe as we sat with Helga and Karl and listened to them again and again, wholeheartedly transmit the depth of their experiences and wisdom of living the practice over many years. Knowing that we would be sharing our journey with others, and also simply to encourage our path, they poured themselves fully into every encounter we had. Each moment was an opportunity to connect and transmit, imparting to us that their time would soon be passing, and sharing their faith in us and our generation to continue. But it was also light, easy, and very playful as we shared tea and stories. We laughed at their ways of Sanghabuilding in the old days as they renovated old buildings together; and they broke into laughter with incredulous eyes when we explained about using Thay's Facebook page to promote retreats and internship programs (the fact that Thay even has a Facebook page was practically a mini-enlightenment for them). 

"You can do it differently, and that is what you are for (points to us). We have done the old dinosaur stuff."

I could share much more about our personal interactions with them over our month long stay. But that's enough for now... Let's transition to a more in-depth look at 25-year spiritual path of living and teaching in community of these two elders.  

In the following post, we explore their lives and stories from the beginning....

 

 Can you see Karl and Helga glowing through the sunlight, forest, and building of Intersein?.... Look deeply....